Lade Inhalt...

The foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson

Hausarbeit 2006 18 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Previous Principles in American Foreign Policy

3. Two Key Documents of Wilson’s Foreign Policy
3.1. Wilson’s War Message 1917
3.2. The Fourteen Points Speech 1918

4. Concepts and Principles of Wilson’s Foreign Policy

5. Arguments of Wilson’s opponents

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Since the foundation of the United States, there were different concepts and principles in American Foreign Policy which changed throughout the centuries. While these concepts stayed relatively the same until the beginning of the 20th century, they changed rapidly during the presidency of the democrat Woodrow Wilson. He was the 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921 and contributed to that change in a decisive way. This paper shows which concepts and principles conducted Wilson and influenced his Foreign Policy.

To work out these concepts and principles I concentrate on two of Wilson’s speeches after having presented the basic concepts that were of importance until 1913. Both speeches are outstanding declarations of his presidency. The War Message from April 1917 describes the end of American neutrality towards the European powers. It contains key sentences like “the world must be made safe for democracy” which were often cited later on. The second key document I examine is the Fourteen Points Speech of January 1918, which became Wilson’s most famous speech.[1] It constitutes the first statement about war aims of the Allies and therefore gives further information about Wilson’s principles. This is followed by a presentation of the principles I found in these documents completed by some aspects of the scholarly discourse. In Chapter 5 I give a voice to Wilson’s opponents.

There is a rich diversity of scholarship on President Wilson and World War I. Research is divided into different schools of thought and different scholarly approaches. Therefore I focus on some examples as one can see in Chapter 4.

2. Previous Principles in American Foreign Policy

To understand the concepts of Woodrow Wilson, one must know which principles were predominant in American Foreign Policy until that point of time. Therefore a survey of the most important ideologies is needed. American foreign policy did not play a decisive role until 1914 – unless national interests were at stake – because the United States is in a special geographical position compared to Europe.[2] Furthermore they did not have to expect difficulties in foreign affairs as there was a British hegemony on the seas and a balance of power in Europe.[3] To describe the behavior of the United States, different terms arose.

At first two cultural concepts, which characterized American cultural identity throughout history until today, shall be explained. The first one is the concept of American Exceptionalism. It stands for the unique identity of Americans concerning their different origins, their history and culture; in short, America has a specific role in the world compared to other industrialized countries. This is also described in John Winthrop’s speech “City upon a Hill” which shows America as an example for other nations. The second one is the principle of Manifest Destiny, which means that the Americans were chosen by God to spread democracy in the whole world and to convince other nations of their mission. This principle was often used to justify territorial expansion.

The concepts isolationism and unilateralism also played an important role. Isolationism means that a nation avoids alliances with other nations, while unilateralism stands for acting alone without preceding negotiations with the nations concerned. McDougall is of the opinion that both concepts are wrong. There was never isolationism as the United States had economic and financial relations to other countries.[4] Papp also rejects the term isolationism as it was “more self-proclaimed fantasy than objective fact.”[5] According to the definition, unilateralism could be defined as “complete freedom of action” which is also unrealistic.[6]

World War I led to changing conditions of power which required international acting and mediation instead of isolationism or unilateralism.[7] In 1916, the year of election, however, Wilson proclaimed neutrality but preparedness.[8]

3. Two Key Documents of Wilson’s Foreign Policy

3.1. Wilson’s War Message 1917

Wilson’s hope to stay neutral and to mediate between the Entente and the Central Powers vanished in 1917. On April 2, 1917 he asked the Congress to declare war. The War Message contained some key sentences often cited by politicians and scholars later on.

After having summarized the decisive events concerning Germany’s behavior and hegemony on the sea which led to his decision for war, Wilson emphasized in the second paragraph that he could not understand this behavior of a country which normally acts like human beings.[9] He connected the German submarine warfare to humanity: “Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people cannot be. … [It] is a warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations.”[10] In these words the concepts of isolationism or unilateralism cannot be found any more. It was not the United States that were to the fore but all nations all over the world. It sounds as if Wilson wanted to take responsibility for all peoples as Kissinger described: “National interests were irrelevant; … the war had a moral foundation, whose primary objective was a new and more just international order.”[11] To achieve such a new order, first of all Germany had to be defeated.

In the third paragraph Wilson emphasized that the intervention was not revenge for the lost ships and for the people who died because of the submarine war. For him it was important that human rights were respected and defended: “Our motive will be … the vindication of right, of human right of which we are only a single champion.”[12] With these words he referred to American Exceptionalism. The United States should not be an example, the “City upon a Hill”, any more. This passive example was not enough to achieve a change in the world order; therefore the United States had to intervene.

In the fifth paragraph the League of Honour was mentioned. The League is connected to Wilson’s idea of collective security: if all nations meet each other regularly, find solutions to foreign policy issues and help each other in conflicts, a stable balance of power can be achieved. As a first partner for the League, Wilson suggested Russia that had been “always in fact democratic by heart”.[13] Democracy is the form of state Wilson favored. This was also expressed in the seventh paragraph: “The world must be made safe for democracy”.[14] The reason for war was therefore not conquest but peace and justice, not only for Europe but also for Russia.[15] It was a war to end all wars: if all countries were democratic, they would be protected against the danger of war, and therefore there would be no war any more.

Wilson justified the decision for war with the statement that right is even more important than peace. At the end of his speech, he referred to God: “God helping her, she can do no other.”[16] Religious values are connected to the Manifest Destiny and played an important role in Wilson’s life.

3.2. The Fourteen Points Speech 1918

The speech which included the Fourteen Points was held on January 8, 1918 before a Joint Session of the Congress. At the beginning Wilson referred to the events in Brest-Litovsk where representatives of Russia and of the Central Powers met to discuss their conditions for peace.[17] He reflected the behavior of the parties and praised the excellent attitude of the Russian representatives who held the conferences with open doors as it was seen as standard in democratic countries. At the same time he emphasized that Germany and her allies were the only countries which were not frank and honest. According to Wilson, the United States would attempt to ensure open peace conferences if the war should come to an end.

In paragraph nine, directly preceding the Fourteen Points, Wilson reminded of the principles already described in his War Message. The United States did not enter the war because of revenge but because of the “violation of right”. It was not the United States that now stood in the foreground: “What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves”. It was the whole world which had to become safe for all inhabitants. To achieve justice for the United States, first of all, other nations had to be in justice. That means that for Wilson, the welfare of the whole world was a condition for the welfare of his own country. This is interpretable in two ways. On the one hand, it could mean that Wilson was characterized by altruist values and the welfare of all peoples was important for him. On the other hand it could mean that his single aim was the security of the United States. To achieve this aim he had to establish a new world order. Therefore he presented the “program of the world’s peace”, which consisted of fourteen points. They can be divided in three parts: the first five points were general statements concerning the whole world. In point six to thirteen Wilson referred to specific nations while the third part, respectively point fourteen, was about the League of Nation.


[1] Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt, Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1991), 256.

[2] Christian Hacke, Zur Weltmacht verdammt: Die amerikanische Außenpolitik von Kennedy bis Clinton (Berlin: Propyläen, 1997), 40.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 50.

[5] Daniel S. Papp and Loch K. Johnson and John E. Endicott, eds. American Foreign Policy: History, Politics and Policy (New York: Pearson Education, 2005), 45.

[6] McDougall, Promised Land, 42.

[7] Hacke, Zur Weltmacht verdammt, 41.

[8] Jürgen Heideking, Geschichte der USA (Tübingen: A. Francke Verlag, 1996), 262.

[9] Woodrow Wilson, “Wilson’s War Message, 1917,” in Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, 4th ed., 1st vol., ed. Thomas G. Paterson and Dennis Merrill (Lexington: Heath, 1995), 535.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York, Simon und Schuster, 1994), 48.

[12] Wilson, “War Message,” 536.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Heideking, Geschichte der USA, 264.

[16] Wilson, “War Message,” 537.

[17] Woodrow Wilson, “President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points,” in The World War I Document Archive, ed. Richard Hacken and Jane Plotke, Oct. 1997, Brigham Young Univ. Library, 17 Feb. 2006 <>.


ISBN (eBook)
386 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
Woodrow Wilson



Titel: The foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson